Harvard Professor, Dr. Helen Riess Shares Her Life Story at BHWF

Helen Riess, M.D., Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School (HMS) and Director of the Empathy and Relational Science Program in the Department of Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), gave an eye-opening talk at BHWF. Left to right: Senaida Bautista (president), Justin Roger (Neighborhood arratives speaker – owner of Twentieth Century Limited on Charles Street), Emily Claire (Neighborhood Narratives coordinator), Helen Riess, M.D. (keynote speaker), Meredith Braunstein (vice president), Pat Arroyo (programs director), Jane Gibbons (programs director).

Beacon Hill Women’s Forum (BHWF) members gathered at the historic Hampshire House on Tuesday, April 12, for the last speaker event of the season before the annual Fashion Show.   Justin Roger, Owner of Twentieth Century Limited on Charles Street was the opening “Neighborhood Narrative” speaker for the evening.  An internationally recognized boutique specializing in vintage collectable costume jewelry, Twentieth Century Limited is featured in various travel guidebooks, and has been awarded Boston Magazine’s “Best of Boston” multiple times, as well as Improper Bostonian’s “Boston’s Best.”  Having opened over 20 years ago, it boasts one of the world’s largest Miriam Haskell, Trifari and Bakelite Art Deco collections, and over 2,000 pairs of cufflinks. 

The keynote speaker, Helen Riess, M.D., Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School (HMS) and Director of the Empathy and Relational Science Program in the Department of Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), gave an eye-opening talk titled, “Art of Empathy: Pursuit of Empathy to Enrich Connections.”  BHWF members were delighted for the opportunity to learn about her life and pioneering work on translational empathy research, for which she has received numerous prestigious accolades, including the 2013 Partners Healthcare Medical Education Research Award, the 2012 Harvard Coaching Institute Research Poster Award, and the 2013 SUNY Medical University Endowed Gilbert Humanism in Medicine Lecture Award. 

Dr. Riess give her life story, beginning with the experience of her parents whose families were persecuted for practicing peace and pacifism during World War II.  Her parents met in their 20’s in Austria and immigrated to the US with her elder sister, approximately four months before Dr. Riess was born.  Dr. Riess shared the story of her husband, a Gastroenterologist at MGH, whose family also experienced oppression in Japanese-American Internment camps during World War II.  From her parents, Dr. Riess learned to “do good, no matter what happens” and to value education, which once acquired, one can never be stripped of.  She excelled in school and went on to pursue a career in medicine, specializing in psychiatry.  

At one point in her career, she noticed a surge in articles discussing challenges the rampant doctor burnout epidemic imposed on patient care, and the need for innovative ways to improve the quality of the physician-patient relationship.  Feeling passionate about tackling this issue, she applied for and received a two year fellowship from Harvard Medical School to study the neurobiology of empathy.  At the BHWF event, Dr. Riess provided an example of empathy from her TEDx talk, “The Power of Empathy,” which has drawn over 375,000 viewers – envisioning being in a parking lot and seeing someone’s hand getting slammed in a car door, and understanding the mechanisms by which our body could feel uneasy despite us not being touched.  Dr. Riess taught BHWF members about the four neurobiology components to empathy – cognitive, affective (emotional), behavioral and moral – and the different areas of the brain that become activated.  Furthermore, she shared her research results, in which she used a device that measures tiny amounts of sweat on the skin to monitor physiological response in patients and doctors during their interactions.  Her results showed that during visits in which patients ranked their physicians high in empathy, spikes of physiological response between the pair was often synchronous, while discordance was correlated with low empathy rating.  In a subsequent study, she investigated whether the empathy training program she developed that also aimed to increase self-awareness, emotional intelligence and mindfulness, could improve the way physicians connected with their patients.  To this end, she randomized physicians to either the group receiving her training program or the control group that did not receive training.  Then, she administered empathy reporting to their patients and found the ratings for the group of physicians who had undergone her empathy training program to be twice as high as those of the control group.  Moreover, a follow-up evaluation a year later also showed significantly higher empathy rating for the physicians having received the training, showing that its positive effects could be retained long-term.  Dr. Reiss published these findings in the Journal of General Internal Medicine and highlighted the importance of empathy in the clinical setting in a highly cited Journal of American Medical Association publication, “Empathy in Medicine – A Neurobiological Perspective.” 

In what Dr. Reiss referred to as an “unexpected ripple effect,” she soon received a call from the New York Times medical columnist, Pauline Chen, M.D., who asked for an opportunity to enroll in empathy training program, then wrote a raving review about it.  Then, a business entity approached her with the idea of founding Empathetics Inc. to offer web-based programs.  Although hesitant at first because it was outside her comfort zone of teaching in the academic hospital setting, Dr. Reiss realized that it provided a way to allow more health care professionals access her empathy training modules widely and make impact more broadly.  Moreover, Alan Alda reached out about interviewing her for his book, “If I Understood You Would I Have This Look on My Face?” and featuring her in his podcast series, “Clear+Vivid.”  They soon became friends and he wrote a forward in her book, “The Empathy Effect: Seven Neuroscience-Based Keys for Transforming the Way We Live, Love, Work, and Connect.”  During her talk, Dr. Reiss emphasized the importance of “understanding others, rather than to make haste judgements; engagement with people through intellect and curiosity; and tuning into people with both the head and the heart.”  She also recounted a retreat she went on in Ireland and being inspired by poet/philosopher John O’Donohue, whose writings about true friendship and favorite saying, “the world is all but invitations” has been impactful to her.  BHWF members enjoyed her closing slides of family photos of her husband, daughter, son and Coton dog. BHWF is a nonprofit social club whose aim is to bring together all women living in Beacon Hill and its surrounding areas.  Monthly speaker forums meet at the Hampshire House on the second Tuesday of each month.  Following the forum, members are invited to the “Afterglow” late-night gathering for more conversations.  Various additional gatherings include the “Backyard Adventures” activities, “Feast with Friends” dinners, “The Chestnuts” group for those 50 and plus, “The Acorns” mothers’ group, and “The Willows” group for young and young-at-heart ladies.  For more information about events and to purchase membership, visit www.beaconhillwomensforum.org.

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